Why won’t audiences embrace new space operas? John Carter of Mars, Jupiter Ascending and now Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets all met tepid to disastrous box office responses in most national markets, all but assuring an unlikely franchise future. Meanwhile, any old Star Trek or Star Wars film will make at least $500m and the “good” ones will crack $1billion. Franchise Fever is self-perpetuating.
In the case of Valerian, it’s a great shame, because it’s a really fun movie with a couple of very appealing characters we could gladly follow through multiple adventures. Based on director Luc Besson’s childhood favourite comic strip Valerian and Laureline, this infamously expensive (c. $190,000,000) extravaganza is colourful, eccentric and cool, full of sublime design, eccentric set-pieces and easy-going humour. It’s also – contrary to many US reviews – completely “comprehensible”. If you can’t follow the plot of this, stay away from Personal Shopper.
That plot concerns space-soldiers Valerian and Laureline investigating a genocide, a cancerous energy force at the centre of a gigantic space station, and the protection of the last surviving remnant of a powerful species. Both lead actors are new to me. Dane DeHaan, as Valerian, has an enjoyably mischievous twinkle and a cool deep voice that may actually be an homage to Keanu Reeves vocals in The Matrix. Cara Delevingne, as Laureline, is much more impressive. There’s no available evidence here as to whether she’s ready to play Broadway, but she’s absolutely across the performance style required for this surprisingly specific genre. This isn’t “hard” science- fiction, it’s popcorn Sci-Fi, light and sweet and fun, and Delevingne hits her beats with aplomb. In some ways, Laureline is the Han Solo to Valerian’s Luke Skywalker – more gutsy, faster with a quip, more charismatic generally – and Delevigne gives a Harrison Ford performance, whereby a scowl, an eyebrow or a shifty look to the left can raise a gentle laugh.
Besson – who has supposedly wanted to make this film for decades – directs with utmost professionalism. The film looks great – sleek, polished and seamless – while also distinctive, favouring intriguingly bold close-ups, vibrant angles, and a humongous assortment of creatures who all feel more like good-ol’ animatronics than CGI (whatever the actual case may be). This is a “blue-sky” film, suitable and probably best appreciated by kids (“of all ages”), and the tone is merry.
My biggest quibble is with the story’s framing device of Valerian asking for – and desperately wanting – Laureline’s hand in marriage. Laureline and Valerian are so child-like (or at least, teen-like), and their relationship is so chummy, that they feel far more like sister and brother than potential lovers. Their chemistry isn’t sexual, it’s familial. One doesn’t want them to kiss, one wants to see ‘em give each other noogies.